Ben Folds was in the country recently to promote his brand new album Way To Normal. 3D sent Huwston – the other skinny white bloke with glasses – in to bat.
Ben Folds is not your average piano man. A long line of people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Joel have come before him and whilst he has the performance aspect and song writing traits of his predecessors, his goofy, almost cartoon-like voice and sometimes bizarre lyrics set him apart, so much so that you might expect the guy to smash a guitar on stage.
In the past, his band Ben Folds Five presented songs that could be as comparable to Joel’s She’s Always A Woman To Me or even Benny And The Jets but always with his unique spin. His newer material saw him drawing from a more luscious set of instruments than just drums, bass and piano. The song You Don’t Know Me with Regina Sepktor was even punched out on an MPC sampler.
‘I am a rapper, I got some rap cred and I play German polkas, too. I am somewhere between the two,’ Ben jokes when asked about his apparent preoccupation with the word ‘bitch’ (see his Dr Dre cover, Song For The Dumped or Way To Normal’s The Bitch Went Nuts).
The bio clears up all of the supposed misogyny, but surely a kooky character like Folds is often misinterpreted.
‘Some people do (think it’s misogynist), but I wouldn’t use that as an opportunity to attack their intellect. I would think you would understand that. I like to stir the pot and put things out there that could be misunderstood, so I can’t get upset about it,’ he says. ‘If anyone does think I am misogynist all I want to do is point out that my manager and booking agent are women.’
And when did this misunderstanding start for Ben?
‘EVER SINCE I HAD THOSE BITCHES WORKING FOR ME!’ He jokes, genuinely off-the-cuff and delivered with quite delightful timing.
‘I have been misunderstood since a song I wrote when I was nine years old which you can either take as you being a failure. So you can take that as though, songs need to be written explicitly for people to understand or that songs are almost performance art and the art isn’t complete until the cycle is complete and they have reacted to it, like Andy Kauffman did in the 70s or Borat – I kinda like something in between.’
‘Sometimes I think it is fun to fuck with perception. Like when I wrote Bitch Went Nuts, I wrote another version and put it up on Myspace and the lyrics were about a republican golfer who is trying to make partner at his law firm and his date has gotten drunk and ruined his chances by talking about all of her liberal views. People started posting ‘I am a vegetarian, I am woman and I am deeply offended.’
Ben is a vegetarian, he is not a woman but he is offended!
With a little help from an outside producer, Ben wrestled through a long divorce and completed Way To Normal. As much as they were Ben’s songs, it was still very much a collaborative effort.
‘The collaboration was that he encouraged me to exaggerate, to not only explain the joke (in the meaning behind the songs) but be economical and efficient and creative about what we wanted to do,’ he says. ‘A few notable times he created the arrangement – in Frown Song I am scared if this sounding like a lame version of a Beatles song, I wanted it to go in another direction. Other times he just said ‘you guys are playing too many notes’.’
Explaining the joint or the poignancy to his words is probably something all song writers wish they were exempt from. Whilst Folds is a great interview subject and charming and all that, he thanks me for ‘not going there with Brick and Brainwascht. Explaining himself, he feels, has already been done.
‘I feel like I do it when I write the songs. We’re all guilty of being fascinated with the personality and the autobiography, like who’s dating who and being interested in public failure. People like to know that someone has faults. I just like to get across the song and then run – throw it like a grenade. With Brick we moved so closely between the writing, recording and releasing, I probably would have taken it out if I had a chance to make it stop.’
It’s that sort of Fold’s magic that the movie studios love although most of Folds’ best work for films has landed on the cutting room floor.
‘The song Lucky Us was for a movie, a nerd kissing scene where I thought they were taking a risk on this scene with this long 360 degree camera angle, I knew it had emotional legs, but the scene was cut from the movie, so when I used it on my album people grasped for context but the movie wasn’t there so people wanted to know what it was about.’
Whilst he has always had interest from the production houses in his work he feels his lyrics get in the way of big scenes.
‘They don’t want on the nose lyrics and some of mine get very specific, like Hiroshima, that would ruin a scene, unless it’s about a guy falling off stage. They want someone saying ‘come on, back that ass,’ he joke again, dryly.
As the piano man of our generation, Folds feels comfortable and does not wishing to be swinging an axe on stage as songs like Rocking The Suburbs might have us believe. And, surprisingly enough, he doesn’t mind the comparisons.
‘I am bound to that part of the stage, I think I had a guitar it’s kinda weird standing there. You can pull a rock step but I feel like I am just there to pay piano. The performance is all manners. I like to push the songs by making them compete with the performance. If the performance is winning then that keeps me on my toes about the song writing. In Ben Folds Five we used to really fuck with the songs and do different versions of them.’
‘There is a public perception of piano man, it is well founded, as rap is becoming, hip hop is an institution, you can’t avoid that – trying to avoid that is probably not cool. I want to draw the line in personality or where I am coming from with my song writing, which should be obvious from the first five lines that it is not Jerry Lee Lewis or Elton John.’
Put simply, Folds says he’s just ‘one of those guys who use ‘izzle’ in everything I say.’